After my my mother died in 2008, I took on the challenge of sorting through her things. Other than bins upon bins of fabric she wasn’t a hoarder, preferring to chuck things out the moment their usefulness was outlived. She stopped buying newspapers because they were nothing but clutter. Books were returned to the library posthaste. The occasional knick-knack, usually a Christmas gift from the uninformed, was admired, returned to its packaging, and stored until the giver had departed. Then she would frown at the gift and rhetorically ask “What am I supposed to do with this shittin’ thang?” By the next morning, it would be in the trash along with all of the paper, packaging, instructions, and effluvia. That was my mother.
Imagine my surprise when I opened a drawer (in the chesterdrawers, of course) and found three things: a photograph of my father from his Coast Guard days back in Galveston, Texas; a copy of their divorce decree from 1973; and an 8-track tape of Freddy Fender’s Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.
I recently did one of those “Discover your Heritage!” genetic testing kits; that thing where you spit into a tube and a lab somewhere tells you from whence you came. I am, according to the results, about 50% Scots-Irish, 25% unspecified European, and another 25% hodgepodge of Native American, Southeast Asian, and North African, with just a sprinkling of Jewish from somewhere. Unsurprisingly this raises a lot of questions.
A troll through ancestry.com offers zero answers. According to the records I can find, I come from a long line of hillbillies and rednecks. My mother’s side appears to have simply sprung fully-formed from the Missouri Ozarks, while my father’s side has Alabama red clay and Mississippi River water running through their veins. Except for that one ancestor back in the 1690s who claimed to be from Gloucester, Virginia, we’re all a bunch of good ole boys and girls. Which doesn’t come anywhere near explaining that 50% Scots-Irish thing.
If she were still alive, I would try to ask my mother about all of this though I already know what she would say. She had three stock responses to things perplexing. The first being “well how should I know?” The second and third were variations on the theme.
What I know for sure is that my mother was a farm kid, raised with her 5 siblings on a green patch in the middle of nowhere Missouri. When she was 18 she decided that she’d had enough of that and moved to St. Louis, where she got a job as a secretary. Eventually, the company she worked for offered her a transfer to Houston, Texas, and she took it. The details are pretty sketchy. “Why do you want to know that?” She’d ask, followed by a change of subject—usually about my shitty teenage years and what a brat I was. She wasn’t wrong about, but it didn’t get me the answers I wanted. Occasionally she’d let things slip, but mostly she kept her past as tidy and inaccessible as the Bounty bars she’d squirrel away in the back of the refrigerator, under the heads of iceberg lettuce that no one else would touch.
Even though she was arguably more cosmopolitan than most of her family, she was always an Ozarks hillbilly at the core. This was most evident in her speech patterns and cold, hard pragmatism. At least, I remember her as being a cold, hard pragmatist. As I’ve been exploring my stories, I’ve started questioning that perspective. I suspect I’ve gotten it all wrong, and that she was actually a disappointed romantic, and god knows there’s nothing meaner than a disappointed romantic.
She was the kind of control freak who would make control freaks cry. There was this one time, I was a young adult and living with her and my brother while trying to figure out how to get through college—that’s a thing they don’t tell you, btw, how to get through college when no one else in your family has even tried to go—I made some toast for breakfast. Because I knew how fastidious she was, I cleaned up after myself. Wiped off the counter AND the toaster, washed and put away my dishes. And still, she came home after work, looked around and said “you had toast for breakfast.” “How,” I asked her slowly, “did you know that? I cleaned up.”
“Oh,” she answered, “you moved the toaster a little to the left.”
That was the woman I grew up with. And the woman who left me with far more questions than answers. I know hers isn’t the most compelling story. She wasn’t famous, or funny, or fabulous. But she was definitely a mystery, and I’ve never met a mystery I didn’t want to solve.